‘We’re Not Wired to be Isolated’

Screenshot of a Zoom call during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virtual support groups offer connection and convenience

Throughout this spring and summer on Friday nights, people in recovery from substance use disorder and those who support them have gathered – as many as two dozen at a time – for a dance party.

They dance in their living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens. Some partygoers turn on flashing disco lights and don funky hats as they boogie to buoyant tunes spun by local DJ Craig Mitchell. They congregate virtually, using the online platform Zoom, as a way of finding connection at a time when physical proximity is not possible.

Recovery Vermont, an advocacy group that serves as a resource for other state support centers, started hosting the weekly parties to offer a way to connect without contact. Personal relationships are crucial for people battling substance use disorder.

“We know that to strengthen recovery what we need to do is build stronger connections,” said Peter Espenshade, president and CEO of Recovery Vermont, who attended one dance party in May while tending his outdoor grill.

When Vermont Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency that prohibited group gatherings, agencies and organizations that assist people in recovery across Vermont pivoted to provide their services remotely, either by phone or online meeting platforms, such as Zoom. The technology has allowed group support sessions of various types to continue.

“It’s life-saving. It is extremely important,” said Gary De Carolis, executive director of Turning Point Center of Chittenden County, a peer-run recovery support program.

Recovery Takes a Group Effort

During difficult times when someone with substance use disorder has the urge to turn to their drug of choice, the ear and voice of a person who understands can allay that compulsion, he said. “Addiction is a powerful thing, and you need help with that. You need support with that. You need a team effort.”

Turning Point’s group sessions, including its Recovery Community Yoga classes and Parent Support Group, have gone virtual, and participation in yoga subsequently doubled, De Carolis said. Peer recovery coaches and support specialists, who would normally staff the floor to help walk-in clients, now check in with clients by phone.

“I’ve told everyone on staff that this is an extraordinary time,” he said. “We need to do everything we can to connect with people at this time.”

Howard Center, the Chittenden County service provider for people with substance use disorders and mental health challenges, hosts more than a dozen weekly support groups – including wellness and stress management sessions; group therapy for recently incarcerated individuals; and intensive programs for people new to medication-assisted treatment or stepping down from residential treatment for opioid use disorder. Within about three weeks of the state’s COVID-19 shutdown in mid-March, the agency had moved about 75 percent of those groups to Zoom, said Dan Hall, Howard Center’s director of outpatient services.

Even as Howard Center has resumed in-person office visits for some services where the remote option created a gap in care, the group sessions will continue that way for now, Hall said. “For the foreseeable future, that’s really the plan.”

Although not as valuable for clients as face-to-face interaction, the group sessions have proven an effective substitute for some, particularly people who are already committed to their recovery, he added.

“For the motivated client that wants to change and wants treatment, I think they’ve been able to adapt.”

Recovery Vermont’s idea for dance parties arose during general discussions about ways to stay upbeat and welcoming in the COVID-19 environment. The organization also does a daily check-in on its Facebook page each morning, just to ask people how they’re doing. It shifted its recovery coach training program to online sessions, as well.

In the process, Espenshade said, Recovery Vermont has racked up lessons learned. “You have to work harder to make a connection with technology,” he noted. “That said, if you work at it, it you can make sincere connections.”

Most 12-step programs, built on the Alcoholics Anonymous model, have gone virtual, too. The routine of the meetings and familiarity of the participants give  them consistency and stability – even those in recovery for decades – when they’re on shaky ground, said Liza Ryan, who graduated from Champlain College this spring and works as a peer recovery coach.

Isolation, stress and worry over the pandemic, the financial pressures that many face and the sheer tedium of sheltering in place make this a particularly difficult, risky time for people in recovery. “Especially during the pandemic now, folks are struggling in all kinds of ways,” Ryan said. “That connection piece is definitely a big loss, not being able to be there physically.”

Online Offers Convenience and Ease

If the absence of in-person contact is the cloud, the silver lining is the convenience and ease of access via online gatherings. Ryan and other recovery experts said many people are attending sessions more frequently now, and previously sporadic attendees are showing up regularly on Zoom. It’s easier for participants to find time to hop online while at home; they don’t need transportation or child care to get to an offsite location.

“When you add opportunities for engagement, like Zoom and telephone, you reduce barriers for some of the population,” said Grace Keller, program coordinator for Safe Recovery, a Howard Center program that operates Vermont’s largest needle exchange and provides other support and treatment services for people with substance use disorder.

Keller has seen a similar response with one-on-one support sessions. “We have people who’ve said, ‘I really want to do counseling,’ and then not show up for appointments,” she said. Since going to Zoom, many of those individuals haven’t missed a single session, she noted.

Coaches and group facilitators also have noticed that some participants engage more readily via video than they do in the same room. “Some clients do feel a little bit safer,” Hall said. “You’re in this virtual room, and it’s a little bit less intimidating” than being there in person.

The technology also enables connections that actual gatherings can’t – specifically, by erasing geographic distance. Ryan, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and began her own recovery there, said she has enjoyed virtually returning to meetings she used to frequent back home and seeing old friends.

“That’s normally the highlight of my day,” she said.

At the same time, the technology has proved challenging for some people. Low-income individuals in recovery, in particular, often lack computers or smartphones to use the Zoom platform. Those in rural areas might have no WiFi access. Others have older mobile phones without a video option, only audio, and have to call into the group sessions.

Howard Center has purchased prepaid smartphones multipletimes for those who had none and no other way to link to the Internet. “If clients didn’t have the technology, we were going to get them the technology,” Hall said.

With the Friday night dance parties, Recovery Vermont has tried to take the most hospitable elements of technology to rebuild community for those battling addiction. The events will continue as long as participants remain enthusiastic, Espenshade said.

“There’s a couple of folks for whom it means the world,” he said. “We’re not wired to be isolated.”

This story was reported by Carolyn Shapiro, for the UVM Health Network

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